Participatory Chinatown Launches

The original post can be found at my other blog: The Place of Social Media

Participatory Chinatown launched on May 3 in Boston’s Chinatown. It’s a 3-D interactive game designed to augment the traditional community meeting. Instead of the traditional model of people responding to a powerpoint presentation about the neighborhood, participants in this meeting played a multiplayer game about the neighborhood just as they sat next to each other to discuss the issues they care about. During our launch, we had over 50 people gathered around 40 computers. Each player, or team of players, was assigned a character. Some characters are new to the neighborhood and country, with poor english skills and seeking employment. Others have advanced degrees and good jobs and are seeking luxury apartments close to the office.


Whatever the specific situation, each character is on one of three quests: to find a job, to find a place to live, or to find a place to socialize. The players walk through the streets of Chinatown and are tasked with making the best decisions possible for their character.

After the players made decisions for their characters, the facilitator asked players to discuss how they felt about their experiences. The room erupted in conversation as people spoke about their characters’ problems. This conversation was then transformed by the facilitator to the specifics of the area being considered as part of the Chinatown Master Plan. The second part of the game asks players to make decisions as themselves – no longer as their characters. They are asked to prioritize their personal values for the neighborhood, choosing from labels such as ‘walkability,’ ‘identity,’ ‘affordability,’ ‘connections,’ etc. From these priorities, people are informed with which of three planning scenarios their preferences most closely align – either residential, commercial, or mixed-use. The values of the room are calculated and all the players enter into one of these scenarios where they can view what the area might look like and answer questions about their values.

All of the input provided during both parts of the game are saved and streamed to the website, where players can return to follow the status of their comments and continue the conversation.

The goal of Participatory Chinatown is to get people talking about their neighborhood in ways that involve a range of experiences. Instead of coming to a meeting with a few pet peeves, playing the game gets people to think outside of their comfort zone and participate in a conversation that transforms the abstract concepts of urbanism into the everyday experiences of the characters in the game.

Perhaps most importantly, Participatory Chinatown extended not only the what of the conversation, but the who. The mean age of participants was 30. For a community meeting, let alone a community meeting about a master plan, that’s incredibly low. By integrating a game into the planning process, Participatory Chinatown succeeded in bringing people into the process that are typically excluded. In addition to the young participants, we also worked with 18 local youth to help design the game. The youth helped make the characters by interviewing people in the neighborhood; they helped build the 3-D environments by photographing the neighborhood. They were involved from the very beginning of the process. And during the actual meetings, they functioned as “technology interpreters” and helped people play the game and operate the computers.

Participatory Chinatown changes the nature of the community meeting. It makes democracy fun without being frivolous. There is much more to do to realize the full potential of games for urban planning, but this is a good start.

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